Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Walk 59 -- Leigh-on-Sea, via Southend, to Shoeburyness

Ages: Colin was 60 years and 342 days. Rosemary was 58 years and 119 days.
Weather: Dull at first with a cold wind, but it gradually got hotter and sunnier.
Location: Leigh-on-Sea, via Southend, to Shoeburyness.
Distance: 10 miles.
Total distance: 385½ miles.
Terrain: Concrete paths, pavements and promenade. Wooden pier.
Tide: In, going out.
Rivers to cross: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: No.13, Southend Pier – at over a mile it is the longest in the world!
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: ‘Cork & Cheese’ in Southend where I enjoyed Cheddar Valley traditional cider and Colin tasted Nethergate IPA, City of Cambridge ‘Jet Black’ and Newark Castle Brown.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: No.1 (at last!) on the shore end of Southend Pier.
Diversions: None.
How we got there and back: We drove from Isleham to Shoeburyness station where we caught a train to Leigh-on-Sea.
At the end, we walked up the road to our car and, after tea and biscuits, we drove back to Isleham in Cambridgeshire where we were staying with Paul & Caroline.

We began today’s walk by looping round a pair of concrete posts outside Leigh-on-Sea station where we ended the last walk. Yesterday Colin had noticed someone zooming out of what looked like a factory entrance on a bike, and conjectured that there was a footpath going round the back of some sheds which would get us to Leigh Old Town without having to cross the railway and walk along a road. He was right! (Just sometimes he is!) The footpath is not marked on the map at all, but we were able to walk alongside the railway behind several fishing sheds, and emerge at a delightful little harbour full of small boats. We paused to have a look at these, and then moved on.
The sun came out and it began to get warm. The beach was busy with people sunbathing and children digging – I love the English seaside on a sunny holiday! I think that was one of the reasons that inspired me to think up this daft scheme of walking round the coastline of Britain in the first place. I did notice, however, that no one was actually in the sea – bet it was freezing! We passed a cliff lift, built in 1912 so it said, but the ‘cliff’ was hardly higher than a two-storey house and it was worked by electricity – not terribly interesting.
We stopped at a noticeboard which informed us we were looking at the largest nature reserve in England – – eh? All we could see was grey sea, no whales or dolphins plopping up, no penguins porpoising in the waves, no tigers skulking in the grass, no wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain nor condors wheeling overhead! We read on – this nature reserve is in the mud, revealed twice a day by the receding tide. It is a living mud containing a whole eco-system of thousands upon thousands of tiny creatures – like sea squirts, barnacles, mussels and at least eighteen different kinds of crab including the fascinating little pea crab which spends its entire life inside the shell of a mussel filtering off food as the mussel draws in water and cleaning algae off its host’s gills in return. There are also prawns by the million (there has been a population explosion in prawns recently because their main predator is the cod which has been fished almost to extinction in the North Sea) and worms by the billion – including the amazing peacock worm which shimmers with multicoloured hues and lives in a flexible tube it has constructed itself from estuary mud and worm slime. Added to that there are oysters (a sign of clean water), shannies (an ugly little fish with sharp teeth), starfish, baby plaice, etc, etc, etc – the list is endless. So there you are – next time you are asked in a pub quiz where the largest nature reserve in England is, you know the answer!
The prom widened, and we passed the occasional cafĂ© situated on the top of the beach. We were tempted inside one of them, and consumed a tasty and filling lunch whilst chatting to the proprietor and his wife. He was either Italian or Spanish, and bustled around achieving nothing quite spectacularly. She did all the cooking, was a Londoner, and told us she would like to retire soon and do something special like we were doing (walking round Britain) but knew that she would never drag her old man away from the television set. I commiserated with her because Colin spends hours in front of the goggle box, and has about a hundred tapes of stuff he has recorded every time I do manage to drag him away!Next we approached the feature for which Southend is famous – the longest pier in the world! I got very excited as we drew closer because, in a little fairground on the shore end, was a Ferris wheel – the first since Bognor, 378 miles back!! Colin was a little scathing, saying it was only a small one for children, but I insisted we went on it reminding him of the numerous times I have followed him about looking for ‘real ale’ pubs and putting up with his moods when he either couldn’t find one or it was closed when we got there. But first we had to find the entrances to the funfair and pier which was not as easy as it looked. We seemed to be on the wrong side of the funfair, and the coastal path led us under the pier and onwards. So we turned back inland and at last found a temporary entrance to the pier – it turned out that some bright spark had tried to set fire to the structure but only succeeded (thank goodness) in destroying the shore-end building. Piers seem to act like magnets to these dangerous loonies – that is how Herne Bay Pier met its end, and Brighton’s derelict West Pier has been targeted several times lately even though it has won a generous lottery grant to fully restore it to its former Victorian opulence. I’ll give it to the local Council at Southend, though – they are determined that the pier should remain open, and crowds were flocking in this Easter holiday. I got the impression that it had only reopened this week, so once again we were lucky.
Southend Pier has a train which trundles the length of it, for it is a mile and a third long – that is two and two third miles for the return trip. It is truly mind-boggling! It was built so people could arrive in the resort by paddle steamer, and the reason it is so long is because the estuary is very shallow here. When the tide goes out acres of mud are exposed, and as a child I was always fascinated by the fact that the tide comes in faster than a man can run! I have always wanted to walk the length of Southend Pier, ever since my grandmother used to talk about it when I was quite small, and despite having visited remote corners of the earth like Antarctica and Easter Island, this was my first visit to this magnificent piece of Victorian engineering.
We had to buy a ticket which allowed us to use the train either outwards or back, but the ‘rules’ of our coastal walk do not allow for hitching lifts – so we walked both ways! It was quite fun in the sunshine – we set up a pace along the wooden boards, and lots of other people were walking it too including, I was glad to see, a significant number of children. There were marker signs every quarter of a mile, and the coastline did look a long way away when we got to the other end. The train terminated at a complex of tatty shops, but we walked round the back of those and over to the lifeboat station which was a later addition and set at an angle. There were repairs going on even as we walked past because, we learned later, there had been yet another (unsuccessful) arson attempt from a boat at this end of the pier! (West Pier at Brighton had been attacked from a boat to set it on fire from the sea end.) We looked at the lifeboat, but didn’t get embroiled in a lengthy discussion of its history, thank goodness! We used our optical instruments to look at the Kent coast, but it was very hazy. We could just about make out the oil refinery at Grain, but nothing was clear. We posed for photographs by the bell at the furthest point, then we walked back to shore.
Now it was time to go on the Ferris wheel! Colin was still reluctant – saying that the only other adults on it were with children, but I bought two tickets and clambered on. It was great fun! It didn’t take us very high, but we rose up enough to get good views along the coast and out to the end of the pier. We went round four or five times, then we had to wait for people in each car to get off. I really enjoyed it, and I think Colin did too though he wouldn’t admit it!Next we set off to find his ‘real ale’ pub, the ‘Cork & Cheese’ which we knew was in the new ‘Victorian Plaza’, but we didn’t know where that was. We lost a lot of time because we got into the wrong modern shopping mall and couldn’t find our way out again. Then Colin realised he had a major embarrassing problem with his catheter and needed to find a toilet urgently. He had seen a sign to one, left his bag with me while he hunted it out, then had to come back and retrieve his stuff because his vital replacement plumbing equipment was in it! However, that solved, we got out of the shopping mall and started again. I suggested we walked up to the railway station because there was a significant road name near there on the map. Then Colin found a street map display board, and sure enough that was where the ‘Victorian Plaza’ was. But our problems were still not over – for it was all on different levels, we had forgotten the name of the pub and lost the piece of paper with it written on! We looked at a plan board – nothing helpful. Whilst looking for something else that we thought might be it, I looked over a balustrade and said, “No it isn’t, it’s called the ‘Cork & Cheese’ because there it is and I’ve just remembered!”
After all that, it was well worth finding – it had one of my favourite ciders and a huge range of beers for Colin. We also had a ‘toastie’ each, which was delicious, and we got into conversation with an Irishman at the bar. He told us that his name was Pascal because he was born at Easter, and that he had seen us getting off the train at Leigh-on-Sea earlier in the day. He was very interested in our ‘Round-Britain’ venture, and we chatted for quite a while. He wished us well as he left, a very pleasant chap.
By the time we got back to the seafront to resume our walk, the sun had already gone into ‘evening’ mode and the water had receded revealing acres of khaki mud all the way to the end of the pier. I could really appreciate, for the first time, the speed of the tide which had fascinated me for so many years. I knew there would be no hope for me if I tried to outrun it from the lifeboat station!
We still had quite a bit of walking to do and time was getting on – so it was ‘Quick March!’ towards Shoeburyness. We did stop momentarily to read a notice about the sea wall. In 1940, one thousand eight hundred and four concrete blocks were laid east of the pier as a defensive measure against German invasion. This wall was high for the first half mile or so, and we couldn’t see over which was a bit of a bind. But then our pavement seemed to rise up a bit so we could look at the beach and the sea as we marched along – that was better! More recently, the groynes needed replacing. They laid a fine shingle on the beach instead, which apparently does the job of keeping everything in place and saves the forests as well because groynes are not made from sustainable wood. The other notices we passed were distance markers for a ‘Healthy Southend’ project to encourage people to get out and walk, but we couldn’t work out where the distances were from and to.
Shoeburyness is really the end of the Thames Estuary on the northern side, but you can’t get to it because it is owned by the Army! We had to turn inland by a very high wall, and there was a menacing looking fence sticking out over the mud to discourage you from trying to get there along the beach. We were very tired by then, and just wanted to get back to our car parked at the station. We were following the road round – it seemed far too long in our weariness – when we passed a gate to the right which seemed to be the entrance to a park. It was not marked on the map and we didn’t know where the path went. I just looked at the huge silver padlock on the open gate, and thought that if this proved to be a dead end and we had to retrace our steps only to find they had locked the park up for the night …. I just wasn’t prepared to take the risk in my fatigued state! (Two days later we investigated this on our bikes before commencing the next walk, and it would have been a minor short-cut, that’s all.) So we went round by road, and turned off to the station near the entrance to the barracks – or whatever they were because it wasn’t clear whether or not they were being converted into a housing estate or some such.

That ended Walk no.59, we shall pick up Walk no.60 next time at the entrance to Shoeburyness barracks. We walked the few yards up the road to the station car park where our car was, and fell on the tea and biscuits secreted in the boot! No bikes to pick up, so we drove straight back to Cambridgeshire where we were staying with Paul and Caroline.

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